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Pope's visit ‘worst nightmare’ for New York security

Alejandro Ernesto, AFP | Pope Francis rides through Santiago de Cuba, in eastern Cuba, on September 22, 2015.

The pope’s arrival in New York on Thursday marks the city’s largest ever security operation, with the FBI, Secret Service and NYPD joining forces to prevent a potential attack against the pontiff.

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During his two-day visit to New York, Pope Francis will attend a multi-faith service at the 9/11 memorial, meet tens of thousands of fans in Central Park, and visit a Catholic school in the poor and immigrant-heavy neighbourhood of East Harlem.

The pope will also address the UN General Assembly, alongside 143 other heads of state, including President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin, as the world body convenes its 70th session.

The visit has been categorised by the Department of Homeland Security as a National Special Security Event (NSSE), enlisting a three-pronged apparatus comprising the Secret Service, the FBI, and local authorities, to prevent a potential terror attack.

“This is the single largest and most complicated security undertaking in the history of the NYPD,” John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism for the New York Police Department, told US network NBC on Monday.

Security and intelligence forces have spent months preparing for the visit, travelling to the Vatican and observing how the pope interacts with crowds, training for a potential sniper or physical assault, even employing a replica "popemobile" during simulations.

“Pope Francis is a security agent’s worst nightmare,” Timothy Rembijas, a former FBI agent who assisted in security preparations during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to New York in 2008, told FRANCE 24. “He has such a passion for going into the crowd and meeting the average person, with barely any notice. The Secret Service doesn’t usually have to deal with that. The president doesn't act the same way.”

The pope poses further complications as the leader of the Catholic Church and, according to its doctrine, God’s representative on earth: while agents generally keep hold of presidents' belt loops in order to move them quickly in case of a threat, they’re expected to remain hands-off in the case of the pontiff.

Faced with such an unpredictable and sacrosanct ward, the authorities are using airport-style scanners and ID checks in order to prevent anybody with potentially malicious intent from getting near their target. In Central Park, that will involve screening some 80,000 people. Attendees have been advised to arrive up to six hours before the pontiff does.

Top terror target

Threats to the pope are not theoretical. Pope John Paul II was shot outside Vatican Square in 1981 by a Turkish gunman (who described himself as a nonpolitical mercenary). He was struck four times, leading to severe blood loss.

Today, sympathisers of the Islamic State (IS) group or other extremist terror groups are believed to pose the gravest threat.

“This event is bigger than ever because of the potential IS threat,” Rembijas said. “Think about the publicity a terror group would get from targeting the pope. New York does not want to be the city where that happens.”

According to a source with knowledge of the FBI operation, terrorist negotiators specialised in the IS group and a hostage rescue team will be on standby during the event, alongside bomb technicians and hazardous material specialists.

A week before the pope’s arrival, local, state and federal security forces took part in an exercise simulating building collapses and explosions.

Despite valid concerns, US authorities say that they have not identified any specific, credible threats against the pope. In August, a 15-year-old was arrested by the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), the FBI department charged with preventing terrorist attacks, after he began researching explosives following contact with someone believed to be an IS militant. The contact had encouraged the teenager to attack a visiting diplomat or the pope (it was not clear whether the person was a security agent acting as an IS sympathiser).

Contacted by FRANCE 24, Anne Beagan, special events coordinator at the JTTF, said that the authorities were not releasing any further information about the case.

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